The Bench Debate

Every year during Spring Training the talk starts concerning what 25 players are going to make the roster to start the season.  Often the debate centers less around the starting eight, or the rotation, or even the bullpen, and more around who are going to be those five players on the bench.  There is always going to be a back up catcher in one of those bench positions; for the last few seasons that catcher has been Tony Cruz, and likely will be again this season.  The remaining four spots are generally divided among infield and outfield spots, depending on where the need is the greatest and the best allocation of resources can be made.

This season is no different, though the players themselves always have a different mix.  This season, the likely faces on the bench will include newly signed infielder Mark Ellis, and probable 4th outfielder Jon Jay.  Jay, the starting center fielder for the last two seasons, has a history of streaky hitting and less than admirable defensive skills, possessing a weak throwing arm and limited range.  Enter Peter Bourjos, arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball; his career Universal Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) of +20.2 leads all of MLB since 2010 among center fielders with at least 2000 innings.  Bourjos also possesses a strong arm, and blazing speed, a talent the Cardinals have lacked for many seasons.  Bourjos has been hampered on the offensive side by injuries that have sidelined him for the past two seasons.  His last full season, 2011, leaves with the promise of what he can do at the plate if he’s healthy.  Bourjos is having a good Spring Training, hitting a robust .343/.425/.486, with 3 doubles, a triple and 3 RBIs in 35 ABs.  Jay has not fared well at all this Spring, hitting .174/.208/.196, a performance that will likely relegate him to the bench as the back up outfielder.

With Cruz, Ellis, and Jay on the bench, there remains two additional spots left to fill.  One of those spots, per manager Mike Matheny, is going to be another outfielder.  With Oscar Taveras out of the mix, and Stephen Piscotty likely returning to the minors, Shane Robinson looks to be the fairly obvious choice to return to the bench this season.

Now we get to the crux of the bench debate, that 25th man.  Is it going to be utility guy Daniel Descalso, or glove man Pete Kozma?  As we get closer to that inevitable decision, it appears that choice has already been made, just not officially.  Due to his weak bat, Kozma will be returning to Memphis rather than making the trip to St. Louis for Opening Day.  This move will be welcomed by most of Cardinal Nation; however, I won’t be one of them.

No doubt you are thinking I must be crazy.  Well, I’ve been called worse, but no, I am quite sane.  You see, I value defense in the infield more than most, and I value it highest in the shortstop position.  Despite Kozma’s glaring deficiencies with the stick, he is by far the best defensive shortstop the Cardinals have had since they shoved Brendan Ryan out the door.   Kozma’s career UZR/150 at shortstop is + 9.9.  Daniel Descalso on the other hand, sports a career UZR/150 at shortstop of -19.4.  Even giving Descalso a little leeway for less total innings at the position than Kozma, the difference is still rather stark.  Daniel Descalso is a bad shortstop, let’s not even quibble about it.  Yes, he hits better than Kozma, but not significantly better; if he did, I wouldn’t even be writing this.

Now, for those who care not for sabermetrics, or believe defensive metrics are just not that persuasive, this argument is going to fall on deaf ears.  Those who care not for defense at all, well, then we are not even on the same planet anyway.  It’s not going to matter to the Cardinals, they’ve made their decision already.   It’s going to be Descalso, terrible fielder that he is, backing up Peralta at shortstop.  A starting shortstop who was signed for his offense, not his defense, Peralta is going to look good to me with the specter of Descalso as the alternative.

Now lest you think I am being overly harsh toward Descalso, I say none of this with malice in my heart.  I don’t know Descalso personally but he seems like a nice guy who I would probably like if I did know him.  I just don’t want him playing shortstop on my team.  But play it he will, and I will not like it, but I will lump it, as my mother used to say.

The bench debate, as it were, is for all intents and purposes, over.  If were a judge I would bang my gavel and say “next case”.

Thank you for reading.






Leave a comment


  1. It will be Robinson and Descalso for the same reason its Kelly in the rotation and Martinez the set up guy. Mike is comfortable with familiar faces in familiar roles even if something else has more potential.


  2. That is something I find annoying about Matheny. Not adjusting to changing dynamics but sticking with the comfortable to the detriment of the team. I was hoping that would change with more experience.



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